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Writing Your Proposal

The proposal is the main document that is used to assess your application for the PhD. It is a detailed plan of your whole project, based on the information you have now. It is important to bear in mind that before you have done the research, you cannot possibly know everything you will know when you have done the research. So, when you get into the project, you will almost certainly amend your plan as you go. This is normal and expected. However, the proposal document lays out your initial plan, and shows whether you are able to lay out a roadmap for answering your research question in four years and 80-100 thousand words. You should spend substantial time and energy working on your proposal, and you should get your potential supervisor’s opinion on it several times before submitting it.

When writing your proposal, it is important to bear in mind a few key points:

  • A good research proposal includes only the information that is vital and nothing else;
  • Be honest, clear, objective, succinct and realistic in your objectives;
  • If you find yourself making huge or general claims, reconsider whether the evidence you will have will be strong enough to substantiate these claims in full;
  • If you find you are planning to analyse very large amounts of data, question carefully whether you will really have time and space to do this, and whether analysing a carefully identified subset of the data would be just as good or better to answer your research question;
  • Carefully decide who will want to read your research and what they will do with it. The research being “interesting” is certainly not enough;
  • If you are applying for funding, think carefully about why anyone would want to pay you for the research you are proposing to do – ask yourself what benefit they will get from the research;
  • Work out why your research is important and specifically what contribution to knowledge it will make;
  • Think carefully about what humanity will be able to do when you have done your research that it cannot currently do.
  • Avoid research that will only “cast new light” or “offer a fresh interpretation” on something, unless that new perspective will give the reader some additional benefit beyond having another perspective. All research gives a new perspective. So this is not a goal in itself.

There is a proposal form which must be filled out in order to make your full application. You can find the proposal form here. When completing it, be sure to bear in mind the word limits for each section. They are not only upper limits, but a rough guide of how much you should have to say about each aspect of your project. If you find you do not have much to say or are repeating yourself or rambling, it may be the case that you need to revisit your ideas and make sure they are fully researched and developed. If you do not understand what any of the sections is asking you for, do not guess. Do your research first. For example, a data management plan is a specific thing with specific requirements. Your supervisor will be able to advise you.

When drafting the proposal, bear in mind that individuals reviewing your application will often have to read a large number of other proposals and applications. Well-presented and clearly written proposals are more likely to be looked on favourably and stick in the reviewer’s mind. Avoid long, convoluted, vague or confusing titles. Avoid florid or overly long sentences.

Make sure that you acknowledge the authors of ALL publications you use to write your proposal. Failure to do so will be considered as plagiarism. Do not copy word-for-word what an author has said, unless you are quoting them directly and indicating this properly. You may think that the original author has presented the information with the best possible words in the best format. However, it is best to analyse it and re-write it in your own words. If you absolutely have to quote an author ad verbatim, then make sure that you use quotation marks to indicate it. If you plagiarise in your proposal, your reader will often notice, and in many cases will reject you on the basis that you have proven yourself untrustworthy. Plagiarism is considered an academic crime and is not tolerated.

The proposal form is used for both applying for the PhD itself and for the scholarships that are administered by the faculty. In addition, the form is closely modelled on the Irish Research Council’s Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship application form, meaning that it is easy to reuse the proposal to maximise your chances of securing funding.

After you have spent the time you need to write your proposal, and you have worked with your supervisor to edit and polish it, you are ready to apply for the degree.